Corn tries to look a little too sweet
This week’s $4.8 billion merger of Corn Products International and Bunge Ltd. probably didn’t catch your eye, but with revenues projected to increase 29 percent this year to $4 billion, you might consider paying attention — for the sake of your belly and the environment.
Corn syrup manufacturers are going on the offensive — and that includes a charm offensive. The Corn Refiners Association — an industry trade group — launched a new marketing campaign yesterday that coincided with the announcement of the multi-billion dollar merger.
Corn syrup is trying to clean up its image, but its glossy, interactive website won’t work. In an era when two-thirds of Americans are overweight, it’s about time we start to re-examine food policy. Surprisingly, (or not, depending on how closely you follow America’s convoluted food system) it all comes back to corn. We produce so much corn (heavily subsidized by our tax dollars) that we are feeding it to our cows, turning it into fuel, and developing sweeteners and additives that are pervasive in packaged and processed foods. The average American eats more than 14 tablespoons of sugar a day and an increasing amount of sweeterners is coming from corn syrup. So I am forced to ask: why are we subsidizing the obesity of our own country?
More than 76 million acres of corn are cultivated annually in the United States. Of overall U.S. production, 43 percent will be fed to livestock, more than 20 percent will be turned into ethanol, and most of the remainder will become high fructose corn syrup, corn oil and a host of other corn-based additives and starches destined to end up in foods such as the heavily processed, over-packaged Ring Ding. Yet, the consequences of producing so much corn don’t end at our own belt buckles. While the government spends billions to subsidize food that adds weight to our bellies, they simultaneously fund destruction of America’s fertile land.
The environmental impact of growing all of this corn is simply astounding. Aside from industrial animal production, there is no food raised that is more destructive than industrial corn. Every year, this corn is sprayed with 162 million pounds of chemical pesticides. The production, packaging, and transport of these pesticides contribute 2.7 billion pounds of greenhouse gases to the environment every year. An estimated 17.8 billion pounds of synthetic fertilizers are used on our corn every year — more than any other crop — contributing an additional 35 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions. When you add harvesting, processing, and water pollution from agricultural runoff, you’ve got one big carbon footprint. It derives almost completely from animals, corn syrup and preservatives.
The funny thing about corn is that most of the kind that we grow in this country doesn’t directly feed people. (Having grown up in Northern Maryland, I learned that when I got hungry while playing in corn fields next to my house.) Industrial corn grown for animals and corn byproducts does not taste at all like the corn we eat. The delicious sweet corn we all cherish during summer months is only a small percentage of corn grown domestically. Farm stand corn has a minimal environmental impact, and its nutritional value can not be disputed. Unfortunately, its industrial cousin seems to have gained all the fame — at least in the eyes of corporations and agri-business investors.
Like a growing number of Americans, I am swearing off corn-syrup and as many corn byproducts as possible. You can reduce your own “FoodPrint” by not buying over-packaged foods and processed foods containing byproducts from corn grown with pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, and a lot of fuel. By giving up corn-sweetened and preserved foods, you’ll also, hopefully, be opting for more whole foods, which are better for your health and the environment. Organic alternatives may still contain corn products but at least you’ll know you are buying something that was grown without pesticides, herbicides and other non-organic inputs that pollute soil and waterways.
The Corn Refiners Association spent a lot of money on their marketing campaign, but their slogan “Time for a little food for thought — isn’t it?” feels ironic. It is time for some food for thought, but why don’t we think about why we are growing so much corn in the first place? What will our society and environment actually gain?
Forget high-fructose corn syrup: I’m sticking to organic cane sugar, because, well, corn just isn’t that sweet.
Get Grist in your inbox